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Private Lives

Reviews from the NY Times, The New Yorker Magazine, New York Observer, Variety, and several more, below.

New York Times
Straight to the Heart of Noël Coward's Wit
By Matt Wolf
April 28, 2002

Fifteen years ago, two visiting British actors, Alan Rickman and Lindsay Duncan, raised sexual cunning to a terrifying art on Broadway in "Les Liaisons Dangereuses." As aristocratic partners in Christopher Hampton's stage adaptation of the Choderlos de Laclos novel of 1782, their sex and power games had diabolical consequences. Writing in The New York Times, Frank Rich said the play's malicious wit was "fueled further by a pair of brilliant lead players."

Tonight, directed again by Howard Davies, they open once more together on Broadway, this time as battle-scarred but deeply attuned lovers. At the Richard Rodgers Theater, they are portraying Elyot and Amanda, the on again/off again/on again partners in "Private Lives," Noël Coward's 1930 comedy of manners in which the two chief characters seem quite unable to live together or apart.

Imported from London, following rave reviews last fall and seven Olivier Award nominations in February (the production won three, including one for Ms. Duncan as best actress), the West End cast has remained intact. Besides Mr. Rickman and Ms. Duncan, Adam Godley and Emma Fielding are on hand as Victor and Sibyl, the interim spouses in Amanda and Elyot's quite deliberate inflammatory domestic arrangement, and Alex Belcourt is the maid who briefly adds to the mayhem. (Lest Ms. Belcourt seem an outsider to events, she is in fact married to Mr. Godley.)

Since the two stars last played Broadway, Ms. Duncan, who is 51, has appeared with some regularity in the New York theater, on Broadway in 1996 in "A Midsummer Night's Dream," Off Broadway subsequently in Harold Pinter's "Ashes to Ashes" and, last summer, in a Pinter double bill, "Celebration" and "The Room." Mr. Rickman has starred in such disparate movies as "Die Hard" (1988), "Truly Madly Deeply" and "Robin Hood: Prince of Thieves" (both 1991) and, most recently, "Harry Potter and the Sorcerer's Stone," in which he played Snape, the villain of the piece. Mr. Rickman, who is 56, has just finished shooting the first of many Harry Potter sequels to come.

Early one evening in March near the end of the play's London run, the two performers met in Mr. Rickman's dressing room with Matt Wolf, the London theater critic for Variety, to talk about "Private Lives." Here are excerpts from the conversation.

  MATT WOLF: When you both finished "Les Liaisons," was there any sense of unfinished business? Did you say, "Someday we must do `Private Lives' "?

LINDSAY DUNCAN: (Laughs) Oh, no! We did "Troilus and Cressida" together, but we didn't work together, of course.

RICKMAN: Achilles and Helen don't have too much to say to each other. They're too busy posing.

DUNCAN: And a damn good thing, too! We've hardly ever worked together. After two years of delivering "Les Liaisons," the idea of another project was the last thing on our minds.

RICKMAN: Or even acting ever again.

DUNCAN: It was more like, "Let's go to the nearest bar for rather a long time," yes, but "Let's do something else"? No.

WOLF: What was the impetus for the production?

RICKMAN: I said yes because I knew we would all approach the play from a very direct starting point, knowing that Howard had at first turned it down. Then a smart producer said to him, "Have you actually read it?" He said no and read it and basically fell in love with what to him was a new play. So that was a good start.

WOLF: Presumably, your success with it has to do with playing it for keeps, free of posturing or camp.

RICKMAN: I think we instinctively knew we would basically be saying the lines without any of the usual stuff that comes with Noël Coward. It's at that point that you start to realize how brilliantly constructed the play is.

DUNCAN: As with any play, you think: "Who are these people? What are they saying to each other? How do they go about their relationship with each other and with Victor and Sibyl?" What is revealed is Noël Coward's heart as much as his wit, which you kind of get for nothing; it's all there in the play. I can't think why you wouldn't want to make these people real. It's the writing first; we never discussed any style.

RICKMAN: In rehearsal, I think one of the most — I won't say encouraging, but it was showing us where to go — was this idea of the more serious it was, the more Howard laughed. It wasn't that Howard was trying to be ingratiating; he just genuinely found it funnier and funnier the more we were true.

DUNCAN: What Coward understands is that if someone makes you laugh, it's a direct line to your heart. It is quite sophisticated wit, but it's also ridiculous and childish, and that's the intimate side of it. He is showing something very private about them. WOLF: How well did you know the play?

RICKMAN: I wasn't that familiar with it.

DUNCAN: No, but audiences are.

RICKMAN: I saw it at the National in 1999 with Anton Lesser and Juliet Stevenson. But I thought this was far enough away; in many ways, it was like reading something new.

DUNCAN: People do remember the lines and latch on to the wit that has gone down through the decades. There's no getting away with it: it's the same with Shakespeare. This is an extremely popular play, and also very manageable: it's got five people in the cast. So the task is to get an audience to hear it as if for the first time. (To Rickman) I mean, you've played Hamlet, so you know you've got to find your way around what the audience already thinks they know.

RICKMAN: It is a bit of a hurdle. On the other hand, when I was playing Hamlet, I wasn't thinking of any other Shakespeare plays.

WOLF: I've had people wonder whether this was a deconstruction of "Private Lives."

DUNCAN: People ask us if it's been rewritten. (She laughs). Not very likely. Look, we've set it in the same period, we've done nothing (she breaks the word down into its component syllables) ra-di-cal; I mean, the sets are quite a strong statement but they're not odd in any way. We are doing the play: the first call is the writing, really. You just go to that; you start with that.

WOLF: How do you set about playing the play, in practical terms?

DUNCAN: You need some dexterity. These characters are very quick-witted, and it requires that you think and speak quickly and with precision because the language has to have clarity. Although it sounds very modern, there is nothing sort of casual or 2002 about it. Amanda and Elyot say what they say because the other person says something: these are two people working off each other who know each other very, very well.

WOLF: Does the audience, do you think, regard Amanda and Elyot as being recognizably them or recognizably not them?

DUNCAN: That's the fascination: you don't literally want to watch your lives onstage if you've made an effort to leave the house. But I also think Amanda and Elyot are recognizable. And so much of the humor as well as the more moving moments comes from that fact.

RICKMAN: Yes, and in the middle of their beautifully phrased exchanges, they're incredibly capable of saying, "Shut up," or "Be quiet," or smacking each other; it's very non-P.C.

DUNCAN: They just lose control.

RICKMAN: And at the same time, the gauntlets are flung down throughout the evening as to whether you choose to recognize yourself or not. Although it's not as if Amanda and Elyot think they're in any way like us or even know what normal is. As Amanda says, "What is normal?"

DUNCAN: Both of them have a vitality and a recklessness, as if they are living that fantasy that we all have about being that reckless——

RICKMAN: Childish——

DUNCAN: And loving that passionately. It's at the heart of people's fantasies about falling in love. They play silly games and are foolish and yet they seem to be living life just a notch above the level of most of the rest of us. That element of just moving on is what I so love: get that suitcase and go. It's fabulous: they are ruthless, absolutely ruthless.

WOLF: What happens, then, after the curtain falls? Can you imagine a "Private Lives, Part 2?"

RICKMAN: (Smiles wryly) Well, I'm always sure that they're fighting before they get to the street——

DUNCAN: (Laughing) Screaming at each other. All relations are flawed, but Amanda and Elyot's is hugely flawed. They'd be lucky to make it to the pavement.   

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More off-site about Noel Coward's sophistication

New York Times
Take Hate, Add Love and Shake Tenderly
Ben Brantley
April 29, 2002

The laughter stops, at least for a moment, with the first embrace.

It's been more than five years since Amanda and Elyot have been cheek to cheek, and the occasion is honored with a silence that roars like the ocean. Lest you doubt this is serious stuff, check out the expression on her face, seen over his shoulder. It's a look of rapture, resignation and abject terror. As he will say later, none too happily, "We're in love all right."

The play is "Private Lives," and the subject — although you may have forgotten this — is sex. Or as Amanda describes it, "our chemical what d'you call 'ems." Since Amanda is played by the ravishing Lindsay Duncan and she is speaking to the equally ravishing Alan Rickman, no further definition is required.

In Howard Davies's scintillating new revival of Noël Coward's best-known work, which opened last night at the Richard Rodgers Theater, the erotic bloom is restored to one of the funniest comedies of the 20th century. Although long dismissed as a stylish arrangement of smart surfaces, the implicit carnality in "Private Lives" stirred shivers among the censors of the Lord Chamberlain's office when it was presented for vetting in 1930.

"An immoral play" was the verdict of one Lord Cromer, who took especial offense at "the amorous business" of Act II, which he felt went "very far" and required caution in the staging. Mr. Rickman and Ms. Duncan, it should be noted, make you fully appreciate the old boy's alarm. But reviewers, that jaded breed, raised nary an eyebrow when the play first opened in the West End and on Broadway, starring Coward and Gertrude Lawrence.

What critical objections there were centered on the play's perceived superficiality. Coward, wrote Brooks Atkinson in The New York Times, "has nothing to say, and manages to say it with competent agility for three acts." The playwright himself dismissed it as "the lightest of light comedies." And most revivals — often laugh-milking showcases for aging glamour girls (Tallullah Bankhead, Elizabeth Taylor, Joan Collins) — seemed to confirm that opinion.

But from the earliest performances of "Private Lives," others sensed a graver, more solid center beneath the froth. No less an admirer than T. E. Lawrence, who as Lawrence of Arabia knew a thing or two about conflicted passions, pronounced it a work with "bones and muscles." Generously add flesh and blood to that description and you have Mr. Davies's recipe for his vibrant interpretation of the play, which has only deepened since I saw it in London several months ago.

The production, rest assured, doesn't scant on the expected cosmopolitan pleasures of "Private Lives," which portrays the combustible reunion of the long-divorced Amanda and Elyot when they run into each other on their respective honeymoons with Victor (Adam Godley) and Sybil (Emma Fielding).

Tim Hatley's exquisitely mannered sets, combining Deco geometry and sybaritic luxury, should instantly dispel any worries that this is one of those dreary deconstructions that drain the joy from a familiar frolic. Ditto Jenny Beavan's costumes, which as worn with disarming ease by Ms. Duncan and Mr. Rickman suggest that black tie and slouchy pajamas are interchangeable as evening wear.

Nor do any of the five ensemble members — deftly balanced out by Alex Belcourt as a casually contemptuous French maid — shortchange theatergoers who expect a full ticket's worth of rib tickling. The epigrams crackle or scathe, as called for; the comic pauses are as precise as Greenwich mean time, and when knockabout farce is demanded, the performers deliver it like a team of acrobatic clowns outfitted by Savile Row.

Nonetheless I was entirely sympathetic when at intermission I heard a woman ask her companion, "Is it all right for me to cry at Noël Coward?" Because this production finds the pathos in the idea of a couple who both love and despise each other with such finely matched ferocity. (So do the novels of Thomas Hardy, but they're less fun.) Apart they aren't fully alive; together they create the sort of damage that would make them an insurance underwriter's nightmare.

What makes this "Private Lives" pulse so convincingly is that you never doubt that Amanda and Elyot are, for better and worse, kindred souls. They are first glimpsed apart on adjacent balconies of a hotel in the South of France with their respective younger new spouses. Elyot has just married Sybil, a sweet, stubborn little matron in the making; Amanda is now partnered with the tweedy, gangly and virile Victor.

Despite some cooing and cuddling, the conversation doesn't flow easily for either set of honeymooners. The sardonic playfulness that is the first language of both Amanda and Elyot might as well be Albanian to Victor and Sibyl.

Nor can the younger newlyweds begin to appreciate Amanda and Elyot's shared conviction that flippancy is a necessity because life is far too serious to be taken seriously. Never mind that when Amanda and Elyot become aware of each other's presence they aren't at all pleased to see each other. The very rhythms of the evening alter.

Here at last are two people on the same wavelength. When Amanda speculates idly, as she had with Victor, on whose yacht that might be in the water, Elyot lazily gives exactly the right answer. As Ms. Duncan and Mr. Rickman present it, however, there's a tension and even a sadness beneath the linguistic game playing. Clever words, like smart clothes, are a counterweight to the urgent demands of the naked self. When Amanda and Elyot bolt from their honeymoons to her Paris apartment, the air is thick with equal parts glee and alarm.

Mr. Rickman and Ms. Duncan convey this stinging self-consciousness beautifully. There are tasty hints of feminine vanity in him and masculine belligerence in her that make them seem all the better matched. When they sing snatches of songs to each other, you sense a shared language beyond language.

Last seen on Broadway as the vicious aristocratic lovers of "Les Liaisons Dangereuses," also directed by Mr. Davies, they exude a natural two-sided familiarity that chafes even as it stimulates. As a consequence the hair-trigger reversals between adulation and irritation of the second act, as Amanda and Elyot make love and war, never seem forced or arbitrary.

In roles first played on Broadway by Laurence Olivier and Jill Esmond (Olivier's wife at the time), Mr. Godley and Ms. Fielding firmly hold their own comic ground. One wishes they were allowed to be a tad sexier, though. As it is, it's only their drolly drawn bourgeois solidity that justifies their appeal to the wayward Amanda and Elyot.

It is said all too frequently that opposites attract. The truly subversive aspect of "Private Lives" is its sly insistence that like is drawn to — and repelled by — like.

"I think very few people are completely normal, really, deep down in their private lives," Amanda says famously. Coward, a gay man in a country where homosexuality was legally punishable, knew all about private realms of shared sensuality.

Mr. Davies, Mr. Rickman and Ms. Duncan translate that sense of a secret self, searching with hope and fear for its other half, into universal terms. Against this shadowy terrain, the glitter of "Private Lives" shines all the more bewitchingly.

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Love Bites
Behaving badly in "Private Lives
The New Yorker Magazine
John Lahr
May 6, 2002

On Noël Coward's bookplates was a caricature of him winking—a gesture that announced both his raffish insouciance and his high-camp refusal to suffer. Coward was his own unrepentant invention, and he made a myth of his separation from others. "I am related to no one except myself," he said. He was an egotist; he was a gay man who passed for a heterosexual matinée idol; and he had the public's number. His wink was the visual equivalent of a raspberry blown at convention. Coward gives that impulse a voice in the most gossamer of his good plays, "Private Lives," when his spokesman Elyot Chase says, "Let's be superficial and pity the poor philosophers. Let's blow trumpets and squeakers, and enjoy the party, as much as we can, like very small, quite idiotic school children." Coward's trumpets and squeakers blow full force in the acclaimed London production directed by Howard Davies (which has been imported to the Richard Rodgers, along with its two theatrical grandees, Alan Rickman and Lindsay Duncan). "You mustn't be serious, my dear one; it's just what they want," Elyot tells his former wife, Amanda, after they've rediscovered each other, on adjacent patios in Deauville, while both on their second honeymoons with new mates. He goes on, "All the futile moralists who try to make life unbearable. Laugh at them. . . . Laugh at everything, all their sacred shibboleths. Flippancy brings out the acid in their damned sweetness and light."

"Private Lives" is a comedy of bad manners, whose emotional and structural minimalism turns all the cumbersome proprieties of English drawing-room drama upside down. The play was first staged in 1930, as the decorum of the turn of the century was giving way to a post-First World War sense of dissolution, in which romance was a put-on, honor a masquerade, and communication a kind of false trail of language that led only back to solitude:

AMANDA: China must be very interesting.

ELYOT: Very big, China.

AMANDA: And Japan—

ELYOT: Very small.

In the play's brilliantly constructed first scene, Amanda and Elyot don't meet cute; they meet in high dudgeon. Elyot smokes a cigarette, and Amanda crosses over to his balcony. "Give me one, for God's sake," she says. They are furious with each other and with their new marriages of inconvenience. They stand looking out at the sea, and at the Duke of Westminster's yacht. Amanda says, "I wish I were on it." Elyot replies, "I wish you were too." Thus begins the rebarbative banter, the vinegar in which Britain's sophisticated twenties and thirties were pickled.

Elyot and Amanda—two dandies of detachment who jilt their spouses and run away together to a Parisian love nest—do no real work and have no faith, no principles, and no commitment to anything but their own pleasure. "Within a few years," one dyspeptic early critic wrote, "the student of drama will be sitting in complete bewilderment before the text of 'Private Lives,' wondering what on earth these fellows in 1930 saw in so flimsy a trifle." On the contrary, Elyot and Amanda are among the first enduring sightings on the British stage of what might be called "the modern." Coward—who wrote, in the song "Twentieth Century Blues," "What is there to strive for / Love or keep alive for?"—managed to translate his metaphysical stalemate into comic action. English life had lost its sense of continuity, and Elyot and Amanda are, like the plot, aimless. Their capriciousness is at once galling and, when viewed from Coward's slyly renegade perspective, gallant. His totemic wink surfaces dramatically at the play's finale, during a humiliating showdown between Elyot and Amanda and their outraged mates, Sybil and Victor, who hunt them down and are hellbent on castigating them. The castoffs start to bicker—"I fail to see what humor there is in incessant trivial flippancy," Victor says, when Sybil defends her feckless husband—and, just then, Elyot slips the wink to Amanda. The plot hinges on this moment: it acknowledges the defiant bond of caprice and engineers peace between the exes. As the curtain falls, Sybil and Victor are pummelling each other; Elyot and Amanda tiptoe away from the chaos and out the door. For Coward, who never fully revealed himself in public, this image of evasion is iconic—he repeats it at the end of "Hay Fever" and of "Present Laughter"—and it works as a sort of mission statement for all of his comedy.

In an attempt to disarm critics as well as the public, Coward wrote a series of acute assessments of his plays, which serve as introductions to them. " 'Private Lives,' from the playwright's point of view, may or may not be considered interesting," he wrote, "but, at any rate, from the point of view of technical acting, it is very interesting indeed." As usual, the Master was right; as Elyot and Amanda, Rickman and Duncan have a field day with Coward's nuanced silences, with all the verbal tics and physical revelations of repressed feeling. They understand and convey the essential spiritual conundrum of their characters, who are at once overexcited and underinvolved. I have heard it said that Rickman is a selfish actor—an opinion I heartily decry. He has a sensationally droll presence, underscored by his oboelike voice, which is bored at the edges and content to make its own mellow ironic music. Words—especially consonants—hold their fire, then spill out with hilarious precision. "Mr. and Mrs. Victor Prynne," he says to Amanda, rolling her new name on his tongue with teasing condescension. In mockery, Rickman can be lethal. He also knows the value of being still; his underplaying draws the audience in. In the face of his jejune, pert new bride (the excellent Emma Fielding), Rickman uses his heavy-lidded eyes to parse every aspect of ennui—resignation, sorrow, fatigue, scorn. Standing on Tim Hatley's witty hotel balcony, with the other white balconies above him cantilevered backward like a tilting wedding cake, he strikes something more than the usual clipped, pukka Coward stereotype. Like Coward, he exudes an adamant faith in his own intelligence.

This confidence positively combusts when it meets up with Duncan's quick-witted combination of sex and steel. Duncan is, for me, the finest and most versatile English actress of her generation. In the first scene, she strides onstage in a sleek black-and-white dressing gown, and before she even opens her mouth you know, from her particular aura of containment, that a wild heart is trapped within the cage of her politesse. Duncan has the look of an angel and the mischievous eyes of a devil. When she confesses to her lanky, jug-eared husband (the expert Adam Godley) that her young heart "was jagged with sophistication," she reveals both a sharp mind and a wicked tongue. With her bravado, Duncan hints at shadow but never shows it.

"Manners are especially the need of the plain," Evelyn Waugh joked. "The pretty can get away with anything." "Private Lives" proves the point. Act II finds the giddy goats ensconced in Amanda's garret, a large crimson split-level pad, overflowing with pillows and couches. Elyot and Amanda, who are "beautiful people," are now working hard to behave beautifully with each other. Rickman and Duncan have a great time walking on these emotional eggshells. They foxtrot around the parquet floor; they sing; they make a playful spectacle of their mental agility; they even staunchly refuse to fight.

AMANDA: It's nice, isn't it?

ELYOT: Strangely peaceful. It's an awfully bad reflection on our characters. We ought to be absolutely tortured with conscience.

AMANDA: We are, every now and then. . . .

ELYOT: You're even more ruthless than I am.

Coward understands that manners are about reciprocity, which is well beyond these two. All avowals to the contrary, Amanda and Elyot can't get beyond themselves—a tragedy in life, but a gold mine in comedy. Their outrageousness works a kind of psychic jujitsu that dethrones the serious and neutralizes moral indignation. Thrown off guard by the characters' irresistible high jinks, the audience finds itself accepting the unacceptable; "bad" becomes "good." This is Coward's deft and exhilarating game.

Howard Davies's radical notion is to play Elyot and Amanda's physical passion for real, rather than opting for the standard notional sexual allure. This allows him to capitalize on the wonderful chemistry between Rickman and Duncan, and gives them some memorable moments of "big romantic stuff" while snuggled up on sofas, but it also throws the comedy weirdly off kilter. Coward knew that this particular fun machine was jerry-built—"As a complete play, it leaves a lot to be desired," he wrote—and that speed was essential to make its jokes and its artificiality pay off. Here Act II, which is the play's set piece, goes on too long. When the tormenting couple shout out their code word for silence ("Sollocks") and call for a two-minute cool-down period, the actors amble wordlessly around their garret for two real minutes. When Elyot sits at the piano to sing "Some Day I'll Find You," the song turns into a medley, in which he is joined by Amanda. The famous battle royal that ends the second act is transformed by Davies from a spontaneous free-for-all into a self-conscious production number. Although well executed, it mutes the hilarity of Sybil and Victor's shock when they walk in on their spouses, only to find them rolling on the floor, going at each other hammer and tongs. Still, if the pacing sometimes falters, the stars' bad behavior does not. Rickman and Duncan give the best comic performances that have been seen on Broadway in a very long time.

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New York Observer
Let’s Be Superficial And Enjoy The Private Lives Party
John Heilpern
May 13, 2002

If, for some inexcusable reason, you've never seen Private Lives, go immediately to jail; do not pass go. But you'll have a treat in store with the latest Broadway revival of Noël Coward's 1930 comic masterpiece. If, like most of us, you've seen Private Lives three or four times before-including the unforgettable Joan Collins version-do not despair. You'll find that the new production and its cast have triumphed over historic adversity.

Apart from the previous star vehicles and hack productions, the problem with staging Noël Coward is Noël Coward. The famously clipped, stiff-upper-lip style of "The Master," along with his staccato delivery and silk-dressing-gown chic, has made him the most badly impersonated public figure on and off the English stage. There's even a scratchy recording of him with Gertrude Lawrence-they were the stars of the original Privates Lives production-doing their racy, bantering stuff.

The achievement of the new production's British stars, Alan Rickman and Lindsay Duncan, is that they've jettisoned the dated legacy and the impersonations and actually made those forever battling lovers, Elyot and Amanda, intelligently real. They're both giving supreme comic performances-the best I've seen in Private Lives, or most other places recently.

Be warned, though: This is not the erotic experience the Times critic would have you believe. "The erotic bloom is restored to one of the funniest comedies of the twentieth century," The Times announced, having pointed out that the subject of Private Lives is really sex.

You'll appreciate how tactful I'm trying to be. I'm not even mentioning Ben Brantley by name. But if you visit Private Lives for eroticism, you're going to end up in the wrong place. Noël Coward is about as erotic as Fred Astaire. Stylishness is another matter. The theme of Private Lives isn't anything so disgusting as sex. Love, the impossibility of love, the frightful, fatiguing, infatuated strain of love, the hey-ho, if love were all of love, is Coward's gold-embossed calling card. What's that "nasty, insistent little tune" that Elyot complains about to Amanda and will later sing with her? It's Coward's own bitter-sweet "Some Day I'll Find You," of course.

Some day I'll find you Moonlight behind you True to the dream I am dreaming As I draw near you You'll smile a little smile; For a little while We shall stand Hand in hand.

Slim erotic pickings there .... The sentimental theme song of Private Lives represents Elyot and Amanda's sweet romantic yearning. The reality of the eternally warring lovers is that they're doomed to be incapable of living without each other. ("I'll leave you never / Love you forever," the lyric goes on.) But what do they really want? They want what Noël Coward wanted, in his own inscrutable fashion.

Coward's 1930's keynote address in the play is Elyot's own unapologetic credo: "Let's be superficial and blow trumpets and squeakers, and enjoy the party as much as we can .... " His message is a defense of deft flippancy in the teeth of disapproving bourgeois morality. It's the same escapist message conveyed by the bohemian modernists and closet gays of Coward's Design for Living. "Laugh at everything, all their sacred shibboleths," Elyot adds for good measure. "Flippancy brings out the acid in their damned sweetness and light."

Coward's self-defined talent to amuse could make anything even remotely serious seem boring. He loads the dice against the opposition from the start (and gets away with it). The opening balcony scene of Private Lives is the best balcony scene since Romeo and Juliet, only wittier. Elyot and Amanda, divorced for five years, meet on adjoining balconies of their Deauville hotel where they're honeymooning with their new spouses, tweedy Victor and Sibyl (as in "Don't quibble, Sibyl"). Victor and Sibyl are conventional middle-class clods-no match for a good dose of smart triviality.

Why the effortlessly bored Elyot married bossy Sibyl (played by Emma Fielding in supercomic form), or why the free-spirited Amanda married humorless Victor (the first-rate Adam Godley), is a death wish in search of normality. By Act II, Elyot and Amanda have jilted their spouses and fled to Paris. I've always reluctantly found the second half of Private Lives a bit of a self-pleading romp after the dazzling perfection of the first. Everyone knows at least a line or two from Act I. "Very big, China." "And Japan?" "Very small." But how many of us can recite anything from Act II-except, perhaps, for Elyot's "Certain women should be struck regularly, like gongs."

Howard Davies' otherwise winning production falters by slowing up the second half. Coward's wit is lean and must crackle along. Best not to linger over its artifice. But the director has over-choreographed the knockabout comedy of the closing fight scene, and he's managed to turn "Someday I'll Find You" into a duet and near dirge. He's after the sacred subtext.

Oh, that old thing. The subtext! The brittle, polished surfaces of Coward, like Wilde's elegant wit, is used to camouflage authentic emotion. As a gay man, Noël Coward had good reason to be circumspect in an age when homosexuality was still a crime. Coded evasion was a tactful, necessary style. But reticence has always been a deeply ingrained English characteristic. The national temperament is one of restraint. We often must deduce what the traditionally reserved Englishman feels by what he leaves unsaid. There are private lives (and public faces). Appearances are to be maintained.

But is there any mystery left by now in Coward's subtext? Hasn't it already been strip-mined for what isn't there? For myself, Private Lives' appeal is its flippancy. Rumors that there's much underneath the underneath have been greatly exaggerated. To be sure, Coward is masking solitude and need, but it's a transparent mask. What do we most remember after seeing Private Lives if not the fun we had?

I've written before about being lucky enough to have met Noël Coward when I was just starting out and he was, as it were, finishing up. At 70, Coward was approaching the end of his life. I visited him at his home in Switzerland and interviewed him over two mornings and lunch. "Do stop racking your brains, dear boy, and eat up your lunch," he advised me, looking amused. This is the thing: Apart from the fact that he really was Noël Coward down to his silk dressing gown, apart from him being gloriously funny (and happily enjoying his own jokes), he deflected all seriousness like an unwelcome intruder.

He was like his plays. When I mentioned Samuel Beckett's pessimism to him, he replied with unblinking cool, "He must have read too many of his own plays. It gets him down, I expect." I asked him what the year 1930 meant to him. "Private Lives, of course." And 1939? "Present Laughter," he replied, somewhat overlooking the significance of World War II.

Well, the Master wasn't about to tell his innermost secrets to me. I asked in all innocence how much of his work didn't we know about. He paused for the only time during our meeting: "My dear boy .... " But then, Coward revealed little about himself to anyone.

Is it possible that beneath his glittering, urbane exterior there was a glittering, urbane interior? Naturally, it's said that Mr. Rickman and Ms. Duncan have gone for the "unexplored" subtext of Private Lives. From my point of view, these leading actors-who play so beautifully together-have made Coward's vintage comedy grow up. Mr. Rickman, with his wary, hooded eyes, conveys Elyot's droll boredom in a masterly way; it's as if he's on the verge of killing anything mundane, including poor Sibyl. He's correctly restrained with what Elyot calls "the big, romantic stuff," and is pleasingly, slyly arrogant whenever possible. He leaves us in no doubt that Elyot is smarter than anyone for miles. As Coward's alter ego, it's the least Elyot can do.

Ms. Duncan's Amanda is another of her fine performances, suggesting a brassier sense of comedy than you might expect. Gertrude Lawrence, the original Amanda, was adored by Coward for her vulgarity. (Known as "Gert," no Gert was ever pert.) Ms. Duncan's faintly South London accent hovers on being common in exactly the right low-comedy way. She glides over Coward's archness. "You mustn't be serious, my dear one, it's just what they want," goes Elyot's advice on the code of appearances. The beautiful Ms. Duncan suggests danger and feckless need at a glance. Her Amanda is trouble, all right, and a joy.

(Thanks to Annette)

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Variety
April 29, 2002

Revivals have become Broadway's bread and butter in recent years, and it sometimes seems that most have all the flavor the metaphor implies. But Howard Davies' "Private Lives" is something else entirely: a heady, heaping spoonful of pure caviar. Celebrated in London --which is saying a lot, since Noel Coward's comedy seems to reappear in the West End every time they change the guards at Buckingham Palace -- the production glitters even more brightly on Broadway, at the tail end of a particularly grueling season. In its mixture of wit and style, smarts and feeling, it is simply without peer on a New York stage.

The director's approach is by no means revisionist: The play runs its merrily mean course on traditional if splendidly stylish sets by Tim Hatley (the seaside hotel of act one is wonderfully rendered as an art nouveau wedding cake), in Jenny Beavan's elegantly cut period costumes. And it respects the perfect tailoring of Coward's words, too.

But Davies and his chief collaborators, the mutually sublime Alan Rickman and Lindsay Duncan, who give performances as savagely funny as they are emotionally fertile, find provocative new colors in its famously flippant dialogue. Playing with delicate shifts in tempo and tone, they allow surges of vivid feeling to bubble up in between bouts of arch repartee. A comedy that is often rattled off like a bedroom farce becomes a richly rewarding exploration of the confounding nature of love and attraction.

This isn't to say the production gives short shrift to Coward's acidic wit. On the contrary, Rickman and Duncan, reunited on Broadway some 15 years after playing another pair of romantic combatants under Davies' direction in "Les Liaisons Dangereuse," reveal perfectly matched comic styles, as subtle as they are assured.

Watching the emerging acerbity of the characters they're playing, the divorced Amanda and Elyot, both honeymooning with their new spouses at that seaside hotel, is the chief delight of the play's delicious opening act.

Languidly petting his new bride, Emma Fielding's pert and prettily played Sibyl, as he deflects the conversation from his romantic past, Rickman's Elyot is clearly a man whose personality has been temporarily tranquilized. Only the flickering of an occasional eyebrow, or a flamboyant slouch indicating irritation, suggest the potential for theatrics underneath the Elyot's tailored surfaces. And as she coos on cue to the gamely earnest Victor of Adam Godley, Amanda, too, seems to be working to keep up a placid mask of composure.

But when the two are left alone on their respective balconies, it doesn't take long for sparks to start flying. Indeed, as we watch Amanda's face register astonishment, then dismay and finally a warmly pleasurable relish when she first catches sight of Elyot, it's as if a well-oiled machine that has been idling begins to warm up.

Soon enough it's at full throttle. Abandoned by their spouses after mutually desperate attempts to escape, Amanda and Elyot begin lacing into each other with playful abandon, and Duncan and Rickman bring such sly and witty inflections to Coward's cutting dialogue -- the amount of scorn Duncan pours into three words, "Very flat, Norfolk," is impossible to convey -- that it's easy to overlook how clearly the actors also convey the submerged feeling that simmers beneath the brittle words.

With their warring instincts suddenly activated, it's not long before Amanda and Elyot's mutually loving ones break out into the open, too. The brisk clip of the dialogue subsides into a torturously slow give and take; silences fall heavily in between the sarcasms. A sad tenderness springs into Duncan's darkly glittering eyes.

It's in this transition that the sorcery of the production most amazes. Mere minutes after whipping the audience into a frenzy of laughter, Rickman and Duncan reduce us to a kind of painful rapture: The aching truth of the feeling between Amanda and Elyot, their sudden, agonized recognition that the love they still share is the purest expression of their proud individuality, strikes us with a terrible poignancy. The flight to Paris becomes something more than a farcical adventure: It's a matter of life and death.

Successful as it is at presenting the play's glossy comic surfaces -- Duncan's honey-dipped politesse as she serves coffee in the last scene is alone worth the price of admission -- the production more crucially reawakens us to the radical ideas that Coward dressed up in funny banter: Here and elsewhere, the playwright questions the nature of love as it has been codified and celebrated through centuries of Western culture. Is it, as Sibyl and Victor and the rest are led to believe, a state of placid comfort, a happily-ever-after heaven on earth? (Tellingly, Coward chooses to make clear that Amanda and Elyot don't buy the standard religious pieties either.) Or is it simply an electric current between two personalities that can express itself in combat just as naturally as cuddling, flippancy as naturally as fond declarations?

Whatever name it is given, the feeling between Amanda and Elyot is a force so powerful it even manages to set a few fires in the temperate hearts of Sibyl and Victor. But even as these two bring the play to its farcical finale, tearing at each other with a violence that silences their amused spouses, Rickman and Duncan rivet the attention with a mere glance, as Elyot looks imploringly at Amanda and reaches gently for her hand. The moment contains a sad irony to rival the comic one in the foreground: It's only when these two wonderfully articulate creatures aren't saying a word that they can really communicate.

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Associated Press
Gloriously dissecting the leasures and pain of love
Michael Kuchwara
Apr 28, 2002

There's new life to be found in "Private Lives," the popular Noel Coward comedy first seen on Broadway more than 70 years ago and which hasn't been offstage since.

Yet it's taken director Howard Davies and a superb cast headed by Lindsay Duncan and Alan Rickman to find not only the pleasures but the pain in Coward's smart, witty rumination on the ways and waywardness of love.

The production, which opened Sunday at the Richard Rodgers Theatre, is blissfully funny — sharp and chic, as well as insightful into the destructive things people do to the ones they care about the most.

By now, we all know — or should know — the story. Amanda and Elyot, divorced five years ago, meet accidentally on their Riviera honeymoons with new spouses, Victor and Sibyl. The flame may have flickered between the ex-helpmates but it never entirely went out. The only thing to do is run off together to Paris.

"We're being terribly bad, so terribly bad, we'll suffer for this. I know we shall," says the overly dramatic Amanda. "It can't be helped," counters Elyot — and she readily agrees. The two spend the rest of the play dealing with their impetuous decision.

"Private Lives" has gotten a bum rap on Broadway over the last two decades. The leaden Elizabeth Taylor-Richard Burton vehicle in the 1980s and then the equally misguided Joan Collins-Simon Jones version in the '90s did nothing to enhance the play's reputation.

What makes Davies' production, seen in London earlier this season, so successful is that he has grounded the frivolity of both Amanda and Elyot in the couple's awareness of the high cost of their shenanigans. It reaches its high point in a wistful duet between the two, combining Coward's "Someday I'll Find You" — sung in the original by Coward and Gertrude Lawrence — with his "If Love Were All," interpolated into the show by Davies.

Duncan and Rickman are not singers, but they are accomplished performers, getting the emotional underpinnings to those songs. Both, however, are expert comedians.

Watch what Rickman can do with just one raised eyebrow. Guaranteed laughs. His Elyot is cranky, spoiled and thoroughly captivating. There is also a world-weariness to his portrait of the man, a sadness that occasionally creeps over his face as he contemplates further outbursts, physical as well as emotional, with Amanda.

Duncan is sleek and sexy, particularly in the formal wear designed by Jenny Beavan for the play's first act. The actress, best-known for her work in the plays of Harold Pinter, can make her voice purr with the smoothness of satisfied kitten. Yet she too can find the unease which accompanies Amanda's rediscovery of old romance. And Duncan does a delicious doubletake when she first discovers Elyot on an adjoining balcony in the honeymoon scene.

Davies doesn't neglect the play's second spouses, two of the most unappreciated characters in 20th-century English comedy. Here they hold their own and even shine. Can you make a stuffed shirt out of a lanky tweed scarecrow? Adam Godley does and his portrayal of the bewildered Victor is a model of comic hilarity.

Emma Fielding's Sibyl is equally proper and formidable in her own way, as the evening's very physical finale reveals. Alex Belcourt, as a most gymnastic French maid, completes the cast.

The London production has been expanded to fill the large expanse of the Rodgers stage, making Amanda's Parisian apartment look as big as an airplane hangar. Yet designer Tim Hatley's Act 1 hotel balconies are marvels, extending all the way to the proscenium arch of the theater.

"We're older and wiser now," Elyot says in justifying the couple's actions. Older, yes. Wiser, maybe, as the characters continue to spar with a fierceness that doesn't slacken even as their self-doubts never quite disappear.

This "Private Lives" is a revival in the best sense of the word. It resurrects the play, celebrates Coward's near-perfect craftsmanship and yet manages to find new meaning in the master's stylish banter.

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New York Post
'Private' First Class
CliveBarnes
April 29, 2002

They can't live with one another and they can't live without one another. Sounds familiar? Of course, it's Elyot and Amanda again, the battling lovers of Noel Coward's "Private Lives. "These two have probably appeared on Broadway almost as often as Damon Runyon, and they returned last night to the Richard Rodgers Theatre, once more to spread their wayward magic.

But they returned with a fierce edge of difference. This is a surprising, electric "Private Lives," done jungle-style.

This Elyot and Amanda have the heady scent of an entire zoo of predators.

Credit for this extraordinary change of pace must go to the director Howard Davies, who can always see a skull beneath its skin, and two fantastically gifted actors, the dangerously sublime Lindsay Duncan and the sublimely dangerous Alan Rickman.

Coward claims to have written this disarmingly disciplined masterpiece in a few days. Doubtless he did. But a wealth of feeling and experience went into those few days. Like many great plays - for example Strindberg's class- and sex-obsessed "Miss Julie," - the story is so simple it's scarcely worth repeating. A once-married couple meet on adjacent hotel balconies on the French Riviera - with a coincidence breathtaking enough to convert a non-believer into acceptance of destiny - on the first night of their respective honeymoons to other people. After politely tortured small-talk, the seemingly unquenchable embers of their love flame up into hot lust. They grab their still unpacked suitcases and decamp at once to Paris. All too often, this tale, with its modestly predictable outcome, is presented in the clipped tones and bored superiority of a Coward caricature, who bears a teacup in one hand and a veddy, veddy dry martini in the other. We are neither shaken nor stirred.

Now Davies, Rickman and Duncan have peeled back the facade of upper middle class behavior to lay bare a wild madness, hints of almost heroic evil and a cool, selfish sexuality. This Amanda and Elyot don't really give a fig for anyone and they don't even bother to use the spare fig leaves to cover it up. And both can recognize an obsession when they see one. Oh yes, they suffer - like spoiled children denied the one toy they dote on. Duncan, luxuriously sensual, has the grand and distanced air of a model from a 1930s glossy fashion magazine to whom polo, gambling, dancing and adultery were serious pursuits. And everything is either fun . . . or not fun. Rickman, feral and unsatiated, glittering eyes searching for his mirror image, is all shifty charm personified and wrapped up with a nonchalant and appealing seediness. The trickiness with such performances is that they could be too real for the flimsy structure of the play - that the actors might remind us too often of their earlier acclaimed Broadway duet in "Les Liaisons Dangereuses." But here, Davies' tact and Coward's sheer good humor keep that possibility pretty much at bay, although at times these record-bashing combatants are a little, as Coward puts it, "jagged with sophistication." Simpler humors are masterfully conveyed by the pair's naive, blustering and miserably unsympathetic dupes, the always superb Emma Fielding as Elyot's Sibyl (never has a Sibyl quibbled better) and an impeccably starched Adam Godley as Amanda's Victor. Completing the cast is Alex Belcourt's sulky French maid, who manages the best pratfall seen on Broadway since Michael Crawford in "Black Comedy." Take these provocative joys, add settings by Tim Hatley that playfully echo the play's mood, costumes by Jenny Beavan's that unerringly catch the period, and skillful lighting by Peter Mumford that makes time its essence, and you have a blissful night of wicked enchantment.

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Broadway.com
Private Lives
Critic: William Stevenson

It's hardly shocking that Noël Coward's 72-year-old Private Lives holds up as a witty comedy. After all, it's frequently revived as a star vehicle for everyone from Maggie Smith to Joan Collins. But it's still a pleasant surprise that the latest Broadway production, imported from London with its entire cast intact, is fresh, sparkling, and delightfully, wickedly funny.

This is due not only to Coward's brilliant dialogue ("Some women should be struck regularly-like gongs") but also to Howard Davies' lively direction and the star turns by Alan Rickman and Lindsay Duncan (who previously costarred on Broadway in Les Liaisons Dangereuses). As the battling Elyot and Amanda, they're a priceless pair.

For those who haven't seen Private Lives or who've forgotten the plot, Elyot and Amanda were once married and then bitterly divorced. We first meet Elyot and his new bride, Sibyl (Emma Fielding), who are enjoying the first night of their honeymoon on the terrace of their hotel room in the south of France. While at first they appear blissfully happy, the mood doesn't last, thanks largely to Elyot's temper. "I should like to cut off your head with a meat ax," he says before long.

If Elyot is a lovable rogue, Sibyl is a goody two shoes. And it so happens that Amanda is staying right next door on her honeymoon with her new husband, Victor (Adam Godley), who is also prim, proper, and, well, pretty boring. Like Elyot, Amanda is armed with a rapier tongue. In other words, they're made for each other. And their mousy new spouses aren't cut out for the abuse Elyot and Amanda are inclined to dish out.

I won't give away the rest of the story, but it's not difficult to predict. What makes the play so amusing is Coward's bitchy repartee. Rickman earns one of the evening's biggest laughs when he calls Amanda a "slattern" and a "fishwife." But Amanda holds her own: Her bite is just as bad as her bark. Some of the dialogue will no doubt ring a bell, as when Amanda remarks, "Extraordinary how potent cheap music is."

With lines like that, it's no wonder Private Lives remains a classic. But it's not usually presented with such panache. Director Howard Davies keeps the pace sprightly, although it does slow down in the second act. With help from fight coordinator Terry King, he stages more physical roughhousing than is necessary. But most of the time Davies wisely keeps the focus on the sharp dialogue.

And fortunately, he has Rickman and Duncan to put it over with style. Rickman, who's also done memorable work in low-budget movies like An Awfully Big Adventure and Truly Madly Deeply, makes Elyot absolutely incorrigible, as he should be. Nasty and selfish, Elyot is also so entertaining-especially as played by Rickman-that you forgive him almost anything.

As Amanda, Duncan is even more chicly elegant. Stunning in a black robe and black evening gown, she even looks smashing wearing satin pajamas. (Jenny Beavan designed the gorgeous 1930s costumes.) Hilarious when delivering zingers, Duncan also manages to be touching when she says that after the divorce her heart was "jagged with sophistication." And when she flashes her devious smile, Duncan steals laughs without uttering a word. The only thing Duncan and Rickman can't do well is sing, which makes the brief musical interludes less successful than they might be.

In their supporting roles, Fielding and Godley are convincingly square. They're certainly no match for Rickman and Duncan, which is a problem in a few scenes but generally works to the play's advantage. In a smaller role as a French maid, Alex Belcourt makes a hilarious entrance and has fun displaying Parisian pique.

But besides Rickman and Duncan-who should be assured of Tony nominations-the most striking thing about the revival is Tim Hatley's set design. His seaside hotel is tall and grand, and the Paris apartment he's created is even more glamorous, complete with an illuminated Eiffel Tower in the background. Peter Mumford's lighting is also first-rate.

All in all, this Private Lives is one of the best productions of the season and should not be missed.

____________________________________________

New York Daily News Coward's Classic, Classily Done Howard Kissel April 29, 2002

Noel Coward's "Private Lives" has weathered seven decades with unusual grace. It has even survived productions with Elizabeth Taylor and Joan Collins.

You're not going to see it more elegantly performed than in the current revival, imported from London, starring Alan Rickman and Lindsay Duncan, who last appeared on Broadway together 15 years ago in "Les Liaisons Dangereuses," then as now directed by Howard Davies.

They play Elyot and Amanda, '20s London Smart Setters, divorced for five years, each now honeymooning with a new spouse in a French hotel, where their terraces adjoin.

Duncan is perfect for Coward. Her lithe body has a natural elegance. Her features are exquisite, and when she smiles, the radiance in her eyes fills the theater.

One of the high points of the first act comes when they make their discovery of a potentially disastrous coincidence. A band is playing "Someday I'll Find You," which is their song. Elyot, not yet having seen Amanda next door, begins humming. She then starts humming. When he gives her a startled look, she beams him that extraordinary smile. The effect is both hilarious and warm.

Rickman is not a conventional choice for Elyot. His face has a kind of oafish quality, his voice is gruff, his manner a bit crude, not like the refined types who generally play the part. But the counterpoint of his earthy swagger and her ethereal poise gives the play a modern tone. By contrast, their spouses, played by Emma Fielding and Adam Godley, seem very much period types.

For the first act, which has the wit, elegance and polish of a Mozart string quartet, it all blends harmoniously.

The second act, when Elyot and Amanda have deserted their new loves and taken refuge in Amanda's flat in Paris, becomes problematic. It is as if Davies instructed his cast to play it seriously, which seems too stark a contrast to the effervescence of what has come before and the rambunctiousness that follows, when everyone is again in great form.

The terraces Tim Hatley has designed are unusually opulent. Jenny Beavan's costumes have great period flair. Her first-act gown for Duncan is the essence of chic.

Coward was an object of derision for Britain's Angry Young Men in the '50s. Yet many of their plays now seem far more dated. When "Private Lives" is performed this well, its charm feels timeless.

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Newsday
The Sophistication of 'Private Lives'
The revival of Noel Coward's comedy is elegant and refreshing
By Linda Winer
April 29, 2002

Finally, Broadway has actors who wear silk pajamas without looking tarted up for a Noel Coward costume ball. At last, we have a production of "Private Lives" that plays high-stakes romantic games for keeps at what one grown-up character calls the "big tables."

After decades of revivals that exploited Coward's most popular comedy as a sideshow for aging actresses with something to prove, we have been granted a visit from the exquisitely sophisticated Lindsay Duncan and the sardonically sophisticated Alan Rickman in the Howard Davies staging that recently broke box office records for a nonmusical in London.

For a generation forced to know Amanda as Elizabeth Taylor with her itsy-bitsy voice and hopeless stage presence in her saddest 1983 days, or Amanda as Joan Collins with her bad wig and Kabuki technique in 1992, this is both a relief and a revelation. Even Davies and company can do little to stop Coward's smart and breezy 1930 style show from degenerating into tedious low-comedy violence in the third act. For the hours until the inevitable slapping and the chasing and the household-object tossing, however, we are rapt in a world where hearts may break but always keep their wits about them.

The only other time Duncan and Rickman made sparks on Broadway together, they were the most glamorous of sadistic 18th century co-conspirators in Davies' erotic and elegantly brutal staging of "Les Liaisons Dangereuses." Fifteen years later, their relationship is dangerous again - only, this time, their cruelty to others is merely an afterthought by two people delighted, terrified and transported by passion for one another and for their irresistible selves.

How different this play feels when Amanda and Elyot are so palpably crazy about one another. Divorced for five years and on honeymoons in the same French hotel, the two brilliant but bratty spirits reconnect with a frisson that, for once, convinces us that they have no choice but to leave their inadequately normal new spouses immediately. Duncan, a specialist in the shudder under the surface of Harold Pinter plays, can make the fine bones beneath her creamy skin into weapons. Rickman, one of Hollywood's favorite smart villains, has such a believable combination of rough and slick qualities that expressions of love feel almost unbearably intimate.

It helps to remember that Coward created these volatile free spirits for himself, at 31, and Gertrude Lawrence, 29. Duncan and Rickman are not such crazy kids, but their Amanda and Elyot have the combustible chemistry of people who can't stay away from each other, no matter whom their libidos might hurt. There are positive and negative charges between them, but every high-strung moment is charged.

They meet, deliciously and agonizingly cute, on their honeymoon nights at a hotel that Tim Hatley has designed as an enchanted leaning tower of meringue and moonlight - dreamily created by Peter Mumford. Seldom has onstage air seemed so high in the clouds. After the two abandon their new mates, we are dropped into Amanda's Paris flat, a darkly rose and deeply tufted studio, where intimacies seem as inevitable - and at least as authentic - as the Eiffel Tower outside.

Davies has wisely acknowledged that, though the new spouses are all too conventional for these wild things, the other newlyweds have to be attractive enough to keep us from doubting the instincts of the main characters. Emma Fielding and Adam Godley are somewhat more than stock characters in the first act, though the difference between their elevated artifice and the others' articulate emotionalism is more than merely style. But in the last act, when Coward goes for pratfalls instead of profundity, Fielding and Godley have blissful fun proving Coward's proposition that "Few people are completely normal, deep down in their private lives."

Alex Belcourt, despite an ill-advised but virtuosic somersault entrance, has just the right rude superiority as the French maid. And, except for the oddly snug cut of Elyot's fashionable suits, Jenny Beavan's costumes - like the Coward song the couple so touchingly croaks - have a talent to amuse and to dazzle.

(Thanks to Annette)

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  Private Lives in London

Excerpt from the NY Times
London's Preening in a Rearview Mirror
February 7, 2002
Ben Brantley

There would seem to be little new to do with "Private Lives," for example, which long ago became a campy war horse to be ridden vigorously by stars of a certain age (Tallulah Bankhead, Elizabeth Taylor, Joan Collins, etc.). But Howard Davies's new production at the Albery gives fresh sting and tingle to Coward's classic comedy of romantic bliss and savagery.

This latest incarnation has the unqualified blessing of Alan Rickman and Lindsay Duncan as Elyot and Amanda, roles created by Coward and Gertrude Lawrence. Ms. Duncan and Mr. Rickman, you may recall, proved themselves masters of sexual war games in Christopher Hampton's "Liaisons Dangereuses" (1985), also directed by Mr. Davies and which came to Broadway.

Memories of that spirited teaming enrich the pair's performances here as noisy erotic sparring partners who have not been quieted by age. The production has the requisite Deco gloss, and its comic machinery clicks along beautifully.

But the show is also steeped in a brooding awareness of the destructive effects of passion, recalling an entry from Coward's diary on Laurence Olivier and Vivien Leigh: "It is depressing to reflect that two such talented and enchanting people should torture each other so."

It's not hard to convey the stylish surface affinities of Elyot and Amanda. What Ms. Duncan and Mr. Rickman achieve is the suggestion of a darker, dangerously compelling bond beneath the wit and whimsy. Mr. Rickman's assumed drollness brings to mind heterosexual men who say forlornly they would probably have been happier gay, while Ms. Duncan's ravishing Amanda has a hard, bright self-assurance that keeps preciousness at bay.

Mr. Davies shifts efficiently into a laughs-by- numbers approach for the show's concluding confrontations. Still, you feel a subliminal shiver of recognition when Amanda says, "I think very few people are completely normal really, deep down in their private lives."

____________________________________________

Here is an exclusive snippet from a theatregoer's review of Private Lives:

Rickman and Duncan are on the balcony. Rickman stands in a 3/4 profile facing stage right (that's your left from the audience) on the left-sided balcony. Rickman has one knee bent, and his hand in front of him resting on the balcony. The couple do not move a muscle during that speech, nor does a soul in the audience if the magic is working (and it nearly always did).

Rickman as Elyot delivers this speech to Duncan as Amanda:

"You're looking very lovely, you know, in this damned moonlight. Your skin is clear and cool, and your eyes are shining, and and you're growing lovelier and lovelier every second as I look at you. You don't hold any mystery for me, darling, do you mind? There isn't a particle of you that I don't know, remember, and want."

At the end of that speech, Rickman slides that left hand onto her hip; a time or two, he was a bit far and slid his hand across her stomach (which totally did me in!). Rickman pulls her toward him, while, with his right hand, he takes her left hand and guides it over his shoulder.

They hug and you see Duncan's uplifted face, covered with tears. They do not kiss.

[Thanks to Georgiana]

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  Private Lives

The Sunday London Times: Culture: Theatre

'Quite simply, one of the great Coward revivals': Alan Rickman and Lindsay Duncan in Private Lives

Revival of the fittest

Howard Davies's production of Private Lives is like a breath of dark, hot wind in a cool drawing room. Coward's crisp staccato sparkle is laced with the melancholy of experience. Former husband and wife Amanda and Elyot (Lindsay Duncan, Alan Rickman) are advanced sensualists, highly trained and battle weary, who have settled, in their second marriages, for tedious safety as the price for having the upper hand. Amanda's new husband, Victor (Adam Godley), is prim, prissy and pompous: in moments of indignation, his face resembles an outraged prune. Elyot's wife, Sybil (Emma Fielding), is a picture of smug but tetchy respectability: a canary masquerading as a storm petrel. This is clearly going to be a no-win situation.

The point about Amanda and Elyot is that they know themselves and each other all too well. They are both demanding, highly strung, difficult adults, paired off with pert little adults spouting their needs. Middle age has got its foot in the door: your choices are narrowing, and all that experience has the drawback of producing fatigue. On the other hand, it's no good being sophisticated if you can't have anybody to be sophisticated with. The thing about calm after the storm is that you need the storm before the calm.

The darker tone of the production brings out even more the elegance and subtlety of Coward's wit: the jokes sparkle against the murky background like fireworks. Duncan badly needs a proper period hairdo, but her Amanda, a sensual, thoughtful, imperious she-wolf, is a masterpiece of serious high comedy. Rickman plays a silky, world-weary tiger, a melancholy Caesar watching with appalled fascination as Cleopatra rolls out of the carpet. Oh God, will this be love? Again? This is, quite simply, one of the great Coward revivals.

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